Populist businessman Igor Matovic is set to become Slovakia‘s next prime minister after his Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (Olano) movement enjoyed a surge of support in elections.
Founded as an anti-corruption protest party 10 years ago, Olano surged in the weeks leading up to Saturday’s election to take 25 percent of votes amid a highly fragmented field.
In an election campaign that focused on rampant corruption, the result signifies a change of course for the small EU and NATO member.
Rejecting the nationalism pursued by the outgoing governing parties, Slovaks have voted to remain in Europe’s centrist mainstream, said analysts.
However, having pushed the nominally left-wing Smer party to its first election defeat since 2002, Matovic now faces a significant challenge to put together a governing coalition.
Negotiations with other parties from within a disparate “democratic opposition” bloc are likely to be tricky, while the electorate has clearly tasked the next government with cleaning up a state riddled with corruption.
A new populism
Founded on an anti-graft platform by political showman Matovic, Olano is the first non-nationalist party to win an election since Slovakia became independent in 1993.
The collapse in support for Smer’s left-wing populism came in the wake of the 2018 shooting of journalist Jan Kuciak and fiancee Martina Kusnirova, and the subsequent exposure of deep corruption in politics, the judiciary and police.
The outgoing governing party saw its share of the vote fall to 18.29 percent from over 28 percent at the last election in 2016.
Populist anti-immigration party Sme Rodina came in third with 8.24 percent. Meanwhile, Olano’s centre-right populist appeal appears to have drained significant support from the neo-Nazi (LSNS), which was disappointed to finish with 7.97 percent.
A further pair of centre-right parties – Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) And Za Ludi – will also enter Parliament.
However, the coalition of Spolu and Progresivne Slovensko (PS), the left-liberal party linked to President Zuzana Caputova – who was swept to victory by protests over the Kuciak murder in an election last year – missed out, having fallen just short of the 7 percent threshold.
“The new liberal parties appeared to misjudge Slovakia,” said Juraj Marusiak at the Slovak Academy of Sciences. “The polls showed that Slovaks are generally conservative. The election has replaced left-wing nationalist populism with centre-right populism.”
However, many still see the result as significant, and evidence that Slovakia has turned away from nationalism.
Analysts warned in advance of the vote that another victory for Smer would have seen Slovakia shift onto the illiberal course being followed by neighbouring Hungary and Poland, whose nationalist populist governments are in deep conflict with the EU.
“We want to show in this election that Central Europe has not gone crazy,” Matovic told reporters just before the vote.
Grigorij Meseznikov, president of Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), called it “a crucial election that decides which way Slovakia will head”.
The opposition and many media outlets have since 2018 accused Smer and its leader Robert Fico of allowing Slovakia to deteriorate into a “mafia state”. Mass protests over Kuciak’s murder pushed the authoritarian from the prime minister’s chair in 2018, although he remained the power behind the throne.
Many accuse Fico of unleashing dangerous forces, and feared he was ready to work with LSNS if it meant he could cling to power and maintain his oligarch networks.
“The fact that the potential for LSNS to take a role in government was so widely discussed shows that this anti-system party is no longer isolated from the mainstream,” suggested Olga Gyarfasova from Bratislava’s Comenius University.
In the face of Smer’s scandals, Matovic leveraged his showmanship and decade-long leadership of his anti-graft movement to ride the wave of public anger. Olano’s campaign slogan shouted from billboards across the country: “Let’s beat the mafia together.”
The result makes Olano only the third party to win an election in Slovakia. All previous races since the country became independent in 1993 were won either by Smer, or before 2006 by Vladimir Meciar. The authoritarian populist’s chaotic rule in the 1990s earned Slovakia the reputation as “the black hole of Europe”.
Back from the brink?
Following the vote, the focus turns to how Olano can lead Slovakia back from the brink.
Many analysts and parties are wary of Matovic’s grandstanding style and narrow focus on corruption. The country’s health and education systems are in urgent need of reform and investment, they stress, and social issues such as migration and LGBT rights remain highly contentious.
Matovic’s unpredictability and inexperience, as well as his party’s shallow structure and unstable personnel, is another concern.
“Matovic is very effective in approaching voters weary of mainstream politics,” said Gyarfasova. “But how can you rule with such a ‘party’. Such populism and entertainment is incompatible with effective government.”
However, Jaroslav Nad, a member of Olano’s executive committee and widely tipped to become Slovakia’s next defence minister, insisted that Olano understands it now has a “tremendous responsibility” to lead the next government.
The party is set to open negotiations with the libertarian SaS and centre-right Za Ludi. However, that would offer a slim majority of 78 of the 150 seats in Parliament.
Should Sme Rodina, which has often voted alongside Smer and the LSNS in Parliament, be lured on board, the next government would have the constitutional majority that Matovic insists is vital to clean up the country. The Olano leader is set to speak with Sme Rodina leader Boris Kollar first.
However, Sme Rodina’s inclusion would only expand the disparities among a set of parties that has little in common, save for their commitment to removing Smer.
Without that common enemy, it remains to be seen how effective a government they could put together.
Nad insisted Matovic has a “much better relationship with the other party leaders than it appears,” but many remain sceptical.
But Olano’s stance on issues aside from corruption is not easy to determine. The party has made few clear policy proposals, but has spoken vaguely of social spending increases. Such largesse could be tough for some potential partners to swallow.
Other sensitive issues such as migration, LGBT rights or the environment are also likely to remain bogged down by the competing visions of Slovakia’s conservative Catholic rural regions and the more liberal urban areas.
Meanwhile, with the Eurosceptic SaS and Sme Rodina also in the coalition, Slovakia’s next government would likely struggle to differentiate itself from its neighbours in Central Europe as a pro-EU beacon, despite Matovic’s statements extolling EU and NATO membership as cornerstones.
The biggest challenge, however, will remain cleaning up the state. The trial of oligarch Marian Kocner for ordering the Kuciak murder, which opened in January, has exposed how deeply the Mafia-linked oligarch’s tentacles reached into Slovak politics, as well as the judiciary and police.
Cleaning the system up would test any government, but for now all the parties from the “democratic” bloc insist that they’re ready for the challenge.
“We have no alternative but to form an effective government if we want to keep Smer and the extremists out of power,” stated Nad, who said the other parties have already pledged to support Matovic as the next prime minister.